Issue 11, Volume 17
When I was three years old my mother purchased a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for me. They are beautiful and fearsome books – heavy, bound in black leather, pages gilded with gold, with a dedication on the first leaf that reads ‘to my darling daughter’. Our family purchased a computer before the books could become useful, so for the majority of my life the extent of my relationship with the encyclopaedia was located in the time and physical effort it took to load and unload them into boxes each time my family moved (a frequent event).
After each move, they were, once again, displayed on two sagging shelves of my bedroom bookcase, serving as a constant reminder of the full weight of what they symbolised – all the academic expectations of my working-class immigrant parents. In our family, like many others at the time, the Encyclopaedia Britannica functioned as a status symbol. To exhibit the encyclopaedia in a place of prominence in one’s home became a point of pride – a sign of success, of worldliness and culture, a sort-of shrine to the god of knowledge. Though almost never read by many of the families who so proudly displayed them, owning the encyclopaedia told the world how those families compared to the proverbial Joneses.
After moving out of my mother’s house at age eighteen I had almost forgotten about the encyclopaedia, until one day in 2014 when they came back into my possession. I hastily decided to take them on when my mother was once more on the move, and found myself faced with this mountain of books, this goliath of paper and knowledge, with no idea what I would use them for – only a certainty that they could not simply be discarded. Overwhelmed by the wastefulness of their very existence, reading them seemed like a logical response.
I established a daily practice of reading – each day working my way through a few more ‘facts’, a bit more of this Western version of humanity’s history and knowledge. All the while, I recorded my voice as I progressed. I found the process addictive and attractive in both its simplicity and enormity, and I soon became determined to make it through all twenty-nine volumes. The allure of the challenge of digesting the ‘whole field of human knowledge’ in this project was seductive. As my reading developed it became clear that the sheer size of this task would require more pairs of eyes, more voices than just my own. I decided to make my ritual of obsessive reading a collaborative one and began the process of recruiting a team of female volunteers – one feminine voice to be paired with each volume of the masculine Micro- and Macropaedia. By combining these voices into the unintelligible audio piece that is Babel, the work invites consideration of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a contemporary Tower of Babel – a failed monument to human achievement.
Following the completion of each woman’s reading, once she returned her volume, I tore out the pages of the book before shredding and pulping them – ultimately creating a single new sheet of paper. The result of this rebirth is an imperfect piece of paper, an object that is entirely new and yet offers some small fragments of words and images – traces of its former life. In a sense, these acts of abstraction offer the audience everything – every piece of knowledge contained in the encyclopaedia – and nothing at the same time. In this way, the work serves as a denial of the authority of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the culture that birthed it. Viewing ‘all of human knowledge’ in this way, reduced to a series of imperfect pieces of paper, there is an awareness of the scale and scope of human wisdom, and the inadequacy of this paper to contain it. The blank sheets of Volumes hang mute, in direct contrast to the inaccessible loudness of Babel that accompanies them. In both these works, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is silenced through an act of destruction, echoing its real-world fall from grace and replacement by the technologies that made this project possible.
But there’s another echo in this body of work. Abstracting the encyclopaedia reflects the abstraction already inherent in any attempt to create a single objective and complete record of all knowledge and human experience.
These works seek to engage with the tensions associated with recording knowledge and challenge the hubris of any attempt to prove or celebrate humanity’s accomplishments and progress. Through destructive practices both Babel and Volumes abstract the content and object of the encyclopaedia, serving as a reminder of the frailty of all human institutions and endeavours – all of which will inevitably crumble and fall.
Emily Sandrussi is a third year JD student and artist. Emily displayed her exhibition 'The Whole Field of Human Knowledge' in Sydney during 2016. You can view more of her work at her website.